Cyril Ponnamperuma and the Origins of Life

Cyril Ponnamperuma

Cyril Ponnamperuma
(1923 – 1994)

On October 16, 1923, Ceylonese-American chemist and exobiologist Cyril Ponnamperuma was born. Cyril Ponnamperuma was a leading authority on the chemical origins of life. He built on the work of Miller and Clayton Urey studying chemical reactions in “primordial soupexperiments. Ponnamperuma focused on producing compounds related to the nucleic acids and offered a convincing theory about series of chemical reactions that gave rise to precursors of life on earth.

Cyril Ponnamperuma attended St. Aloysius’ College, Galle and later St. Joseph’s College, Colombo. He continued his education in India and earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1948. Ponnamperuma then moved to the United Kingdom and joined Birkbeck, University of London. There he finished his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. Ponnamperuma moved to the United States where he received his doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley.

During his scientific career, Cyril Ponnamperuma authored more than 400 articles on chemical evolution and the origins of life. Next to contributing to the field of abiogenesis, Ponnamperuma joined NASA’s Exobiology Division and took over the Chemical Evolution Division. He was appointed principal investigator for analysis of lunar soil brought to earth by Project Apollo. Ponnamperuma was further involved with NASA in the Viking and Voyager programmes. He was offered membership in the Space Science Advisory Council and Life Sciences Advisory Council of NASA.

Cyril Ponnamperuma became the first director of the “Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies” in Sri Lanka and he was appointed science advisor to the President of Sri Lanka by the late President J. R. Jayewardene. In 1967, the Atomic Energy Commission of India offered him an assignment as a visiting Professor and further, UNESCO appointed him as its Director of the Programme for the development of basic research in Sri Lanka. During his later career, Ponnamperuma joined University of Maryland where he became Professor of Chemistry as well as the Director of the laboratory of chemical evolution.

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